As the time has been leading up to the 50th Anniversary of the death of one of our youngest Presidents, I've been thinking a lot about how I "remember" JFK. I can't, after all, actually remember JFK; I wasn't alive during his time on this earth. But I took enough history courses and read enough books and watched enough documentaries to "remember" his legacy. It's sort of like a child "remembering" their baptism when they were baptized as an infant; they can't and don't actually remember it, but they can still remember it.
As I began reflecting on what I know about JFK, I realized that a majority of what I know about his Presidency didn't have anything to do with his leadership. Frankly, when it comes to US history, I'm far more fascinated by the Civil War and World War II than I am the Missile Crisis, and I'm often frustrated about the anti-communism (little c emphasized) sentiment in America that resulted from that time period. Kennedy, as a President, is something I know little about.
I do know some information about his death, though.
Perhaps it's because his death was so dramatic. Perhaps it's because we have video testament of the moment he was shot (we don't have that for any other assassinated President), perhaps it's because he's the most recent Presidential assassination in America's history, perhaps it's simply because he's a Kennedy. I don't know why, but I know more (and frankly, care more) about Kennedy's death than his presidency.
Don't be fooled, America does too. We are this week remembering the 50th anniversary of his death. We didn't celebrate the 50th anniversary of his election. Years and years of speculation and fact-proofing have gone into theorizing about whether or not Oswald acted alone or if the entire thing was a government ruse. The drama of it all causes us to remember Kennedy's death more than his life (with the one notable exception of our fascination with his mistresses).
It occurs to me that this might be the case with Jesus as well. One look at the vast array of contemporary worship songs will make that point clear: Jesus's death on the cross and that unbelievable image of self sacrifice for the benefit of humankind is one of the prime pieces of material for Christian story-telling (especially in music).
But is that right and proper in and of itself? Surely God's work in Jesus of Nazareth to save all mankind through the atonement for sins is an incredibly important part of the story, but is it right to focus so heavily on that while neglecting the other pieces of his life? Is it right to, within the music we sing, focus so heavily on Jesus's death? What might his life show humanity about who God is and what God has called us to do and, perhaps more importantly, who God has called us to be?
It is dangerous to focus so heavily on the death of Jesus if the cost is that the life of discipleship is lost and forgotten in the midst of the drama. In the midst of a dramatic death, it can become far too easy to overlook the blameless life of Jesus the Christ and his ministry, for instance, to the poor and marginalized.
So too would it be improper to focus solely on the life of Jesus, ignoring the grace that was laid upon humanity through Christ's death on the cross. As many theologians have argued many times before, the wholeness of God is seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that wholeness is compromised if one focuses so heavily on one portion of that person and ignores the other. The fullness of God cannot be interpreted without the fullness of Jesus being recognized.
In America, we focus so heavily on JFK's death because it changed the nation and carried its own fair share of drama with it. But part of that drama was who he was. His death, his assassination, cannot be understood apart from his life.
Jesus's death changed the world too. But it ought to be acknowledged that his death cannot be understood in fullness without the telling of his life either. This is why, perhaps, our four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) focus on the entirety of Jesus's being in their retelling of the story that changed the world.
It's important that Christians don't get too caught up in the drama of Christ's death that they miss Christ's ministry in life. It's important too that Christians don't get caught up in the ministry of Christ's life that they miss the grace which is Christ's sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world.
One without the other is incomplete.